U.S. Leaders Should Take Israel’s Threats Against Lebanon Seriously

December 21, 2023 Topic: Hezbollah Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Lebanon Watch Tags: HezbollahIsraelHamasIranWarLebanon War

U.S. Leaders Should Take Israel’s Threats Against Lebanon Seriously

If Israeli officials continue to indicate that a war with Hezbollah is coming, Washington should gradually separate itself from Israel or risk entering the fray.

 

As Israel continues its devastating military operation in Gaza amid a steady flow of Hezbollah attacks along the disputed Lebanon-Israel border, some Israeli officials are now openly suggesting an invasion is necessary to quell the Iran-backed group. This rhetoric marks a shift from the official Israeli policy stance—namely, that Israel does not wish to open a northern front—while presenting a direct threat to U.S. policy objectives of preventing the conflict from spreading. As such, Washington should take note of the risks of another Israel-Hezbollah war and pressure Israeli officials against any invasion of Lebanon.

Such efforts should not be controversial, considering Israeli officials are making clear their intentions to take on Hezbollah. War minister Benny Gantz said as much in a meeting with U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken on December 11 in an official readout: “heightened aggression and increased attacks by Iranian-backed Hezbollah demand of Israel to remove such a threat to the civilian population of northern Israel.” Senior Israeli officials, not limited to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief Herzi Halevi and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have similarly threatened to strike Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s actions since October 7.

 

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant outlined Israel’s plans in early December on a tour of the disputed northern border, claiming, “When we complete the process of fighting in Gaza, the military effort will be directed mainly to the north.” He added, “We cannot persuade the residents of the north to return to their homes along the border unless we make sure that Radwan [a Hezbollah special operations force unit], which is stronger, better trained and equipped than Hamas’ Nukhba force, is not there to endanger our population.”

National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi echoed these sentiments during a December 9 interview with Israel-based Channel 12 news. Hanegbi did not mince words: “The situation in the north must be changed. And it will change. If Hezbollah agrees to change things via diplomacy, very good. But I don’t believe it will.” When pressed on this point, he added that Israel will have to act “when the day comes,” as his government must ensure its citizens can return to their homes in the north, which can only occur when “the situation in the north has changed.”

These threats follow a significant escalation of hostilities along the disputed Israel-Lebanon border that fall well outside of the norm of tit-for-tat exchanges that historically define the area. The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides of the border as both actors deploy increasingly destructive weapons in a show of force that has typically constituted a cycle of maintaining deterrence. Hezbollah’s use of increasingly effective military weapons, such as drones, and Israel’s decision to gradually strike targets deeper into Lebanon in response personify the gradually escalating violence and signal that neither side is interested in backing down.

Indeed, deterrence is not working. Washington continues to project force in the form of two aircraft carrier strike groups, marines on standby, and nuclear submarines packed with cruise missiles that were sent to the region in October and November to deter the war’s expansion. This approach has produced questionable results thus far. Worse, Hezbollah represents the single greatest threat to the state of Israel today outside of Iran, with an estimated 100,000-strong fighting force and upwards of 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel. Simply put, the group is considerably more formidable than Hamas—a smaller Iran-backed group that Israel is struggling to root out in Gaza.

In this context, any war between Israel and Hezbollah would be a disaster on par with the previous 2006 conflict. This war resulted in a stalemate, producing nearly 2,000 deaths—mostly civilian—while displacing over 900,000 people and destroying most of southern Lebanon. Any such conflict today would be on par or worse, given the heightened emotions after October 7, with serious repercussions that will not be contained in the eastern Mediterranean. A multitude of factors contributing to a weakened Lebanon today—namely, one of the worst economic meltdowns in modern times, a year-long constitutional crisis and power struggle over the presidency, and 800,000-1.5 million Syrian refugees living in squalor across the country—bolster this assessment.

Washington understands the risks, and U.S. officials are coming out strongly against actions that would lead to such a war. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed his concern about Israel’s actions along the disputed border to Gallant as early as November 11 in a clear sign of U.S. president Joe Biden’s fears. Other U.S. officials continue to express similar anxieties, culminating in U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstein’s multiple November visits to Beirut and Jerusalem to urge restraint. Hochstein’s successful effort to delineate Israel and Lebanon’s sea border in October 2022, alongside reported efforts to expand that understanding to the land border, explains why he is central to diplomatic efforts.

The Biden administration is wise to take these steps. Ultimately, another Israel-Hezbollah war is not a U.S. interest and simultaneously risks a broader regional war that would result in the deaths of countless civilians. That outcome also puts U.S. forces in harm’s way. As such, U.S. officials have worked tirelessly to ensure the Israel-Hamas war does not expand, conducting extensive face-to-face diplomacy with regional leaders—including passing messages to Iran. The United States has military assets and civilians across West Asia, including many in vulnerable bases in places like Syria. It would struggle to initially defend its people if faced with a broader war that it would almost certainly be dragged into due to domestic political pressures in an election year and Biden’s affinity for Israel.

Given this context, officials must continue to publicly state that the United States will not engage in an expanded conflict and that it does not want one. If Israeli officials continue to indicate that a war with Hezbollah is coming, Washington should gradually separate itself from Israel or risk entering the fray. Any such approach must also consider pressure mechanisms to prevent an Israeli operation—including public criticism, decreasing diplomatic cover, and conditioning or freezing arms sales.

The time has come for U.S. leaders to take a stronger political stance against war in the Middle East. The Biden administration, which claims to be ending “forever wars,” would be wise to take concrete actions that prevent it from sleepwalking into the next one. Ultimately, the U.S. public does not want to enter another war—a point Biden should take to heart as he hopes to win re-election in 2024 amid terrible polling numbers.

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.

Image: Shutterstock.